Sign Language Politeness

Swedish Sign Lang Alphabet

Ran across this quote about polite behavior when passing to signers. I’ve been wondering about what the appropriate behavior is in Sweden, here’s how one signer sees it for ASL (American Sign Language):

“Another norm governs what is appropriate behavior if you have to walk between two people who are signing to each other. In spoken language conversations, i is polite to say ‘excuse me’ as you pass. That is, it is appropriate to use language to recognize the fact that you are temporarily in the way. However, in the deaf community, it is perfectly acceptable and polite to walk between two people having an ASL conversation without signing ‘EXCUSE-ME’. Not only is it polite, but to stop and sign ‘EXCUSE-ME’ or to duck one’s head or bend over as one walks by may even be unacceptable because it will almost always bring conversation to a halt and cause an interruption. This is a norm that differs from the norms for spoken languages conversations.”

p176, Valli, Clayton, and Ceil Lucas. 2001. Linguistics of American Sign Language: an introduction. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press.


How many words are there in a language?

So Many Words
…This is always a vexing question to get asked at parties. It’s like the question “how many languages are there”. There’s no short satisfactory answer, and the truest one remains “honestly, we have no idea”, which is, of course, disappointing.

Now, here are some interesting statistics about how many different words an average speaker of English uses. Turns out that with about 2000 different words, you cover something close to 95% (and maybe more) of the spoken vocabulary. All the rest are just trimmings.

From Thornbury, Scott, and Diana Slade. 2006. Conversation: from description to pedagogy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 42-43

“2.1 Lexical size
In terms of the number of words they need to control, the demands placed on speakers and listeners are considerably fewer than they are for writers and readers: ‘From the small amount of evidence available, itseems that about half the words needed to understand written Englishare needed to understand spoken English’, notes Nation (1990: 85).Schmitt cites an analysis of a corpus of Australian English (Schonell etal ., 1956) which suggests that ‘a person can largely function in every-day conversation with a vocabulary of 2000 words’ (Schmitt, 2000: 74).On the basis of computer counts of word frequency, McCarthy notesthat ‘there is usually a point where frequency drops off rather sharply,from hard-working words which are of extremely high frequency towords that occur relatively infrequently’ (1999: 7). The drop-off point,according to McCarthy, is situated around about 2000 words down inthe frequency ratings, leading him to conclude ‘that a round-figure ped-agogical target of the first 2000 words in order of frequency will safelycover the everyday core’ (ibid .). However, Adolphs and Schmitt (2003),in comparing the Schonell et al. word list with one derived from theCANCODE corpus, found that the top 2000 word families in factprovide only around 95 per cent coverage, rather than the near 100 percent claimed by Schonell et al . (Note that the researchers refer to word families, not individual words. A word family is a base word plus itsinflexions and its most common derivations, a concept that correlatesmore or less with the headwords of a typical dictionary.) Adolphs and Schmitt admit, though, that ‘there is almost no research which exploresthe percentage of words which need to be known in order to operate suc-cessfully in a spoken environment’ (2003: 432). They therefore tenta-tively suggest that 2000 word families may be a useful starting point butthat ‘3000 word families (providing coverage of nearly 96 per cent) is abetter goal if learners wish to minimize their lexical gaps’ (2003: 433).
This figure, however, is based on a broad cross section of native speakercontexts, including professional and academic registers, in the UK andIreland, and does not necessarily represent the lexical needs of most learn-ers, especially those learning English as an International Language(McKay, 2002). For such learners, the 95 per cent coverage of a nativespeaker’s lexical coverage represented by 2000 words would seem to bemore than sufficient, and the effort involved in learning a further 1000words in order to gain one percentage point extra coverage seems out of all proportion to the gains in communicative efficiency that might bemade. In fact, the target need not even be as high as 2000 – West (1960)developed a minimum adequate speech vocabulary for learners of Englishof just 1200 words (compared to the minimum 2000 words for dealingwith written language). This, he argued, would be sufficient for learnersto say most of the things they would need to say. Moreover, even fewerwords would still give the learner (theoretically at least) an advantage,since, in spoken language, a little goes a long way: McCarthy and Carter(1997) point out that whereas the 50 most frequent words in written textcover 38.8 per cent of all written text, the top 50 spoken words cover 48.3per cent – that is to say almost half – of spoken text.”


The etymology of Swedish tallrik ‘plate’ and Norwegian/Danish tallerken ‘plate’


Latin taliare ‘cut’
   -> Old French tailleor ‘cutting board, plate’
    -> Mid High German tallor ‘plate’
      -> MHG tallor-ken ‘plate-DIMINUTIVE’
        -> East Scandinavian tallorken ‘plate’  (16th century)
           -> Danish tallerken ‘plate
           -> Norwegian Bokmål tallerken ‘plate’
             -> Norwegian Nynorsk tallerken ‘plate’ -> tallerk-en ‘plate-DETERMINATE’ -> tallerk ‘plate’
           -> Swedish tallriken ‘plate’ -> tallrik-en ‘plate-DETERMINATE’ -> tallrik ‘plate’


(this is a good example of “folk etymology” and “back formation”)


Fårö = Sheep Island?

Warning for Sheep

Linguists are wary of false friends – false cognates – which is when two words in different languages seem very similar, but have no common history. One example is Arabic “sharif” which is a tribal title for someone who protects their tribe, and English “sheriff” a law man who protects a district. Related? Nope, just a coincidence.

In historical linguistics there is a problem when two words from different times in the history of a languages seem to be the same, but the latter really didn’t evolve from the first one.

My friend Andreas told me about this cool “false friend” in Swedish. We have this island off of Gotland called “Fårö”. Får = sheep, ö = island. Så sheep island, right? Noo, Får was originally far – as in farväg “road for travel” or farvatten “water for travel”. So “travel island”.

A clue in this is that, unlike on the mainland, the Gotlanders say “lamm” for sheep, and not “får…



Celebrate language change!

Language change is awesome.  Got this quote…

“The language most likely to continue long without alteration, would be that of a nation raised a little, and but a little, above barbarity, secluded from strangers, and totally employed in procuring the conveniencies of life; wither without books, or, like some of the Mahometan countries, with very few: men thus busied and unlearned, having only such words as common use requires, would perhaps long continue to express the same notions by the same signs, But no such constancy can be expected in a people polished by arts, and classed by subordination, where one part of the community is sustained and accommodated by the labour of the other. Those who have much leisure to think, will always be enlarging the stock of ideas, and every increase of knowledge, whether real or fancied, will produce new words, or combinations of words. When the mind is unchained from necessity, it will range after convenience; when it is left at large in the fields of speculation, it will shift opinions; as any custom is disused, the words that expressed it must perish with it; as any opinion grows popular, it will innovate speech in the same proportion as it alters practice.”

… from this article: http://www.economist.com/blogs/johnson/2012/07/plurals-0

Endangered Languages, Sociolinguistics

Sami language on Swedish state television

Swedes are often quick to judge Americans and Australians for the way the indigenous cultures and languages are disappearing – but we often forget how we have treated the Sami. “Sami” is an official Swedish minority language nowadays – though “Sami” is a common term for several smaller, quite independent language varieties. The Sami language(s) is a Finno-Ugric language – this means that it is very different from almost all other languages spoken in Europe. But then again, the Finno-Ugric languages have lived in close contact with Indo-European languages for a long time, and there has been lots of language contacts.

Both the Swedish and English wikipedia entries about Sami are quite good!

Swedish state television has a short segment about the fact that several courses in Sami is being presently taught in Sweden:

Here’s a good English speaking short segment (5 minutes) about the history of the Sami language:

etymology, Semantics

Where did our color names come from?


Did you know that brun ‘brown’ once also covered the lila ‘purple’ color area? And that even further back it also meant ‘shining’. That lila ‘purple’ and rosa ‘pink’ are named after or possibly gave name to flowers (Syringa and Rose respectively). That orange ‘orange’ comes (via German) from French, meaning ‘gold’?. That turkos ‘turquois’ comes from the French expression pierre turquoise (stones from Turkey – the stones of this color found there and used for jewellry). That the term blå ‘blue’ once also covered more svart ‘black’ color nuances. That grön ‘green’ is probably derived from ‘vegetation-color’. And that it’s highly likely that there was no unique name for the rosa ‘pink’ color region back in Viking terms – it was just considered a red color.

Oh, I’d love to make a much longer post about this, but as it is I’m just going to post some brief research notes on the origin of Swedish color terms.
Svart    ’black’    Proto-Germanic, possibly also connected to Latin sordes ’dirt’?
Vit    ’white’    Traceable to Indo-European
Röd    ’red’    Traceable to Indo-European
Grön    ’green’    Traceable to Germanic, from ’grow’ > ’grow-colored’? From color of vegetation?
Blå    ’blue’    Traceable to Germanic ’blue, black’ > ’blue’
Gul    ’yellow’    Traceable to PIE, g̑hel- ‘, ‘yellow, bright color’, Possibly yellow-green? Also found in Sanskrit, Greek.
Orange    ’orange’    First attested 1640. < German < French or ’gold’
Turkos    ’turquoise’    First attested 1538, < French pierre turquoise
Brun    ’brown’    Traceable to Indo-European: ’brown, shining’
Lila    ’purple’    First attestted in 1805, < French, name of the Syringa flower
Grå    ’grey’    Traceable to Germanic
Rosa    ’pink’    First attested 1773, < Romance language (French?). Gave name to, or got form, Rose flower.


Making swearing illegal…

Most Swedes have clued in on the fact that sometimes, but not always, swearing in American tv-programs is replaced with a beep. The difference has to do with if the tv-program is on cable or not, and when it is shown. The reason is moralistic – swearing is seen as immoral and degenerative, so the Federal Communications Commission decided that a certain number of words were off limits.

There are actually positive effects of swearing – among other things it can relieve pain. But it is not a property of the swear words themselves, which is why the FCC ban seems so silly. Rather, the effect of swear words lies in their controversial and schocking nature, and this is an effect that deteriorates. In the image below you can see several British swear words from 2006 (BBC study: Delete Expletives?) and how Brits ranked them for severity. But by now, six years later, it is likely that the list has changed.


American linguistics professor John McWhorter (who is most known for his work on creoles) writes an article for CNN about a recent town hall decision in Massachusetts to ban swearing there. He concludes that: “alternate word we would quite possibly use for “stuff”? And a lot? What our great-grandparents considered profanity is, for us, merely colorful. We teach our kids not to use it — but are hardly surprised that they start doing so later.”

So what is a swear word can change quickly – but the law is explicitly designed not to move quickly. You cannot control swearing by banning specific words. You would have to ban something like “general displays of excessive anger” – but I think we can all see how such a law can be misused.

Professor McWhorter also relates a friends story about the “N-word”, which, for those Swedes who haven’t deciphered it yet, is “Nigger”. “Nigger” is seen as incredibly offensive in the US, and must not be used by non-black people, since it is seen as a symbol of extreme oppression*. Yet it is often heard spoken or sung by black people in popular culture, and can then be interpreted as meaning “fellow” or “guy”. At some point in time, this taboo will probably go away, but for now people are sometimes a little unsure how to act. McWhorter says: “a friend of mine, white, recently told me that her boys are attending a mostly black public school and making a lot of friends — but also picking up their way of using the N-word as a marker of fellowship. So, let’s fine them $20 for embracing diversity?”


This situation is not unique for the US at all – many language communities have similar rules about words that can only be uttered by specific people.


“Congratulations is” or “congratulations are”?

I watched the reality show Masterchef, and Gordon Ramsey said “I believe congratulations IS in order”. He’s British.

If you google this, it seems that “Congratulations are in order” is the far most common way of saying this (i.e treating the noun as a plural, rather than a singular seems to be the standard.)

I think the “congratulations is in order” interpretations come from treating  the noun as a citation:

“I think a ‘CONGRATULATIONS’ is in order”.

In general, citations wreck all kinds of havock to the morphology and syntax of sentences!


Are there true synonyms? “Shore” and “coast”

Huh, never thought about this before – but the difference between the words “shore” and “coast” is pretty cool. Both have to do with the strip of land closest to the sea. You can say:

I can see the shore from here!

I can see the coast from here!

Evans (2009) claims that the former has a predominantly sea-to-land based perspective. You’re likely to say it if you’re on a boat look towards land. The latter has a land-to-sea based perspective. You’re more likely to say it if you’re on land, looking towards the sea.

And – consider that “coast-to-coast trip” means a trip over land, while “shore-to-shore trip” means a trip over water.


Evans, Vyvyan. 2009. How words mean lexical concepts, cognitive models, and meaning construction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. http://site.ebrary.com/id/10409021.